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Truth has legs! A New Essay for Vayishlach

Jacob prepared himself for three things: for diplomacy for prayer and for war (Rashi to Gen 32:9).

“Men cannot multitask!” is the constant cry of the fairer sex.  Jacob was obviously an exception! Moreover, to invest in preparation for three very different courses of action simultaneously must have been mentally and temperamentally challenging in the extreme. Sending a lavish tribute to a foe necessitates abject submission and humiliation.. Preparation for a war in which Jacob will have to kill to win requires both physical and moral courage, singlemindedness, determination, aggression and confidence.  Sincere prayer conveys the message that neither submission nor armed might is a determinant; rather does G-D oversee the outcome of human events.

That Jacob can embrace all three approaches with the utmost conviction and sincerity and not suffer schizophrenia as a result is attested to in a later verse in our Sidra.  “Jacob arrived shaleim at the city of Shechem [following his encounter with Esau]” (Gen. 33:18).  Shaleim in this context means “whole” – not only physically (his limp was cured following the encounter with the angel) but also mentally.  Jacob felt utterly stable and secure that his three-pronged strategy had been the right and true one.

Our sages declare that Jacob epitomised the mida (moral quality) of emet, truth.  However this was not a mida with which he was inherently born. The Psalmist declares “Let truth sprout from the earth” The quality of emet, needs to be honed, fostered, cultivated. This indeed was the story of Jacob’s life.

Confronted as a teenager with his twin brother Esau’s extreme loutishness while a lentil soup was being prepared as a mourner’s meal following the passing of Abraham (Gen 25:29-30), Jacob convinced himself that the right and proper thing to do was to goad his faithless brother into sell his burdensome birthright, which he was only too willing to do, for  a bowl of soup.(25:31-34).  Fifty years later, Jacob’s heightened sense of truth made him immensely uneasy at the idea of pretending to be Esau in front of his father (27:11-12), and only his mother’s insistence (27:13) made him do it.  In the house of Lavan, Jacob constantly under-negotiates his wage for fear he might be taking undue advantage of his uncle. And now when he prepares for a long-delayed confrontation with Esau, his nuanced and highly-refined appreciation of emet forces him to acknowledge Esau’s hurt, try to mollify him through gifts, recognition and validation while at the same time knowing that his life and the life of his family come before all else and if he needs to resort to war and killing in self-defence he must without a moment’s hesitation or bad conscience, yet ultimately acknowledging that G-D is in charge and that he must in the last resort cast his burden upon Him.

The word אמת consists of the first, middle and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The very word connotes: looking at matters from the broadest of angles, from start to middle to finish. It connotes taking on board contradictory ideological positions at both extremes and as well as a more centrist path and weigh up each one to determine in what proportion each is needed and must be utilised in any given situation.

Truth also has legs!  Each of the letters of the word אמת has a firm, secure base.  On the other hand the word שקר,  falsehood, has three letters with shaky foundations. (The letter shin is more authentically written with a pointy base.) Truth has firm roots, it is balanced, its base has a left, a right and a middle!

Interestingly, the wordצדק , justice, teaches a similar idea. The basic two-letter root is tsad which means “side”. To do justice is to see a matter from all sides, from every angle, to weigh up conflicting claims, and to arrive at a just and balanced conclusion. Hence perhaps the dual mention of the word tsedek in the famous phrase which Moses declaims in Sefer Devarim (16:20) tsedek tsedek tirdof, “justice, justice shall you pursue”.   Arrive at a just judgement that has been analysed from this perspective and from that!

Jacob felt secure in Shechem.  Sadly no Jew today can feel secure in Shechem (a.k.a Nablus) or Hebron or any other part of the heartlands of our Judea and Samaria.  During our recent visit to Israel, we unexpectedly found ourselves in Beersheva after dark having taken the wrong train back to Bet Shemesh from Netanya.  Mindful of the stabbing and vehicle-ramming attacks that had taken place in Beersheva a few months earlier, my wife was understandably nervous even just waiting on the station platform.  It is intolerable that Jews should be hesitant to venture even into some areas well within the so-called Green Line, areas moreover which have deep Jewish historical roots.

The citizens of the State of Israel have voted, wisely, for a government which will enhance security for every Jew and, indeed, every citizen residing in its borders. One would think that diaspora communities who are so security-conscious, who constantly petition their governments for grants to strengthen protection around synagogues and schools, who go into anxiety-overdrive at the slightest manifestation of anti-Semitism would understand this and would voice their appreciation of the election of a strong government. The citizens of Israel have had four years and five elections to weigh up the variegated options, left, right and centre – indeed maybe it is the Jewish passion for truth which throws up at every election the constant plethora of new, small parties on the entire spectrum from Left to Right, each standing for something a little different, giving rise to the joke that one day every Israeli citizen will have his own political party! But finally the electorate have decided upon a government that places security and the safety of its most vulnerable citizens as one of the highest of priorities.

And just as it was a strong Jacob who was ultimately able to come to Esau with peace overtures, so today in the face of a hostile and unrelenting neighbouring enemy it will be a strong leadership which stands the greatest chance of forging a real shalom, a perfect and true peace for which we all daven and long.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at judaim@bigpond.net.au
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